We open on the flourishing, technological utopian city of New Valarak on the alien world of Prysmos, where the people are soft and pampered due to their robot servants doing all the heavy lifting. Into a posh restaurant, overlooking the city from the cliffside on which it hangs, walks the wizard Merklynn, who knows of the approaching conjunction of the three suns and wants to witness the effects it will have. Sure enough, in a flash of light, all electronics go dead and Merklynn declares a new era of magic has begun as people scream and die and New Valarak is awash in flames.
As was common for many comic tie ins of the era, this debut issue is a loose adaptation of the pilot episode penned by Flint Dille. Writer Jim Salicrup plays a bit loose with his adaptation, but it follows the major plot beats as they originally played out. After several years (it's unspecified how many, but presumably a decade or less), the world has entered a new medieval dark age. Leoric, once Mayor of New Valarak, is now its King and has done his best to guide the city to peace and prosperity. But the outer lands are run by Darkstorm, who rules through the "tough decisions" of enslavement and pillagery. To both, and every other person in the region decked in the armor of a knight, appears the glowing face of Merklynn, inviting all who desire magical powers to enter his citadel on Iron Mountain where their worth will be tested.
Let's pause for a moment and go over our characters. Leoric and Darkstorm are largely unchanged, and I like the focus on their opposing views on how best to manage a struggling world. Leoric's main lieutenants Ectar and Feryll also don't stray from the pilot episode, where they were equally indistinct. Mortdredd is as big a kissass as always. Witterquick, Galadria, Arzon, and Virulina are also the same, though I like the addition of the fact that Virulina stinks from bad hygiene (though, realistically, who in this dark age wouldn't?).
Reekon and Cravex seem to have swapped places. Reekon still only works for money, but he's more a hired warrior than a thief and Cravex has lost his berserker rage as he sneaks around corners and takes people out when they aren't looking. Cryotek isn't all that different, but he apparently now has an old rivalry with Cindarr, who's lost his dim-witted innocence and is now a common thug. Lexor is still a coward, but I love that he's unaffiliated with either side and just manages to bungle into getting powers because he keeps running away in the right direction.
The traps and tests in Merklynn's shrine are a little different, but largely play out as they did on the show. Witterquick runs fast. Ectar uses a leaf as a hang glider. There's a giant scary gargoyle that's frightened off when Leoric charges it because it isn't used to being attacked. Galadria and Virulina have their fight in the water, complete with octopus. Darkstorm recruits his evil knights by trapping them. And there's a free-for-all brawl before Merklynn shows up and gives his magic to everyone who's left.
It's a good adaptation, and I applaud Marvel for the extended 38-page length because nothing feels compressed or rushed. In fact, with scenes like Merklynn in the opening, they actually get to expand on the material in little ways. I can't say most of the characters are particularly distinct, especially since most of them are hidden behind those clunky helmets, so I'm not sure how well it would work for a newcomer unfamiliar with the tv show. Even I got a little lost at times when dozens of knights are running around before they're thinned down to the lead 14. It's not bad, though, giving each character their moment to shine. There's even a great bit with a trio of knights concocting a plan to form a League of Justice, combining "my knowledge of weapons with your detective skills", before Cravex drops a beehive on them and they run away, never to be seen again.
I am impressed that the writing didn't forget to include the humor of the tv show. It's a little clunky and doesn't have the sharp satirical edge of Dille's writing, but it still works. The knights bicker, traps are often as comical as they are threatening (a cave literally swallows knights up, then spits them out with a burp), and there's the occasional great line like "What's your problem[, Mortdredd]? Did Darkstorm get mad at you for rusting his boots with your tongue?"
The art by Mark Bagley and Romeo Tanghall is also a delight. There were some moments where I was lost on who was behind what suit of armor or a face got a little wonky, but their work is very rich and flowing. The armor always has weight and keeps to the design, the action is dynamic and the humor playful, and they're just as good with moments of a dozen knights rolling around in a scuffle as they are grandiose uses of cosmic magical forces. There's two moments in this issue that are absolutely stunning: the two page spread of New Valarak in flames, and our Knights entering Merklynn's chamber and encounter a swirling cloud of the animal spirits destined to become their totems.
This book is a solid piece of work. It's not perfect, with an overly large cast still struggling to give everyone distinction, and a few rough bits here and there, but it's rousing, it's exciting, it's filled with big ideas and personal conflicts. I was instantly captivated by the first episode of the tv series, and the first issue of the comic thankfully doesn't fail to do the same.
Noel has done such an excellent job of outlining the issue that I feel an urge to take you through the various ads instead - like the one with a little boy who is basking in the admiration of a group of girls because of his model car building skills - but I won't. Instead, I'll give you a little context.
Our first issue is dated November of 1987, a year that was a defining moment in my life. It wasn't the year I kissed my first girl (that was 1986). It wasn't the year I got my first pubes (I'm still waiting on those). It was the year I turned thirteen and the last year I got toys for Christmas. I say this because it represented the end of my childhood as defined by toys, cartoons, and comic books, and the start of my adolescence. It was a year when things began to get complicated. Old friends became former friends, replaced by former strangers who became constant companions. The homework got harder, the social pressures increased, and hard choices loomed ahead. Look, it wasn't all gloom and doom and I can truthfully say that I enjoyed my teen years, but life is never quite as pure as those days of imagination when you're twelve years old. Damn, I miss them sometimes. But that's the great thing about an old comic book: it's like a portal to that moment in time. And speaking of which... Sherman? Set the WABAC machine for 1987.
"Go now! Return to your city! Your only hope for survival is to create a brave new world out of the old! I have other matters to attend... Fear not! For Merklynn shall return!"The thing I enjoyed most about this first issue was how it went beyond what the first episode - or even the series as a whole - was able to show us. You expect that from a novelization, but not necessarily from a comic adaptation. The Age of Science was only briefly touched on in the cartoon and never anything more than a set-up for the premise. Here, we get to see that it was really a reflection of the state of humanity in the late 20th century. Were technology and convenience making us soft? Were we losing our primal edge? I couldn't help but think of these lyrics from the song Mr. Roboto as I was reading:
"Anyone know a good restaurant near here?"
The problem's plain to see:Yes, I know the song is corny, but it hits upon the kinds of questions we were asking and the doubts we had as the New Millennium loomed.
Too much technology.
Machines to save our lives.
The other aspect that made reading this so worthwhile was that it strengthened the bonds formed between the Knights on both sides. I don't know that there was more focus on it, but there's something inherently more intimate about reading than simply watching. I could feel the growing camaraderie between the as yet unnamed Spectral Knights and the tangled yet tenuous bonds of the Darkling Lords. I felt a connection to the journey that was missing in the first episode.
As Noel said, it does get hard to keep track of characters at times. Even as the roster of would-be Knights gets whittled down, I still had difficulty keeping track of who was who. For instance, both female Knights are inexplicably clad in purple and silver, and in one scene, Cindarr and Cryotek square off, each wielding an identical sword and both clad in blue and red armor. That's like having a movie where Michael Madsen fights Tom Sizemore. Granted, these are more a problem of concept than the execution of the artists, but the Knights should've been designed to each have bold, distinct armor. And maybe throw in a black guy or two while you're at it. Just don't match them against one another or you get that whole Michael Clarke Duncan/Ving Rhames thing and we're right back where we started.
And, as in the cartoon, the character's personalities are still just as interchangeable. Especially the good guys. While each villain has his or her own little section of character turf to occupy, the good guys, for the most part, are all pretty much the same. When faced with conflict, the villains stop to ponder how it will affect them. They scheme. They plot. They double-cross. When the good guys face a challenge, they draw swords and charge headlong, yelling "Justice! Honor! Courage! Eat your vegetables!"
Issue one gets us off to a good start. It's fast paced without ever feeling rushed and it takes big themes and boils them down without losing the nutrients.
Tune in next Saturday Morning for another Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light adventure in "The Balance of Power".